"Their only words of English were 'thank you'": Rights, gratitude and ‘deserving’ Hungarian Refugees to Britain in 1956

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The Soviet invasion of Hungary in late October 1956 resulted in the exodus of approximately two hundred thousand Hungarians, of whom approximately twenty-one thousand came to Britain within a matter of weeks. This article historicizes the process of reception and resettlement of Hungarian refugees in Britain. Through exploring the rhetoric used and attitudes displayed during the reception and resettlement process, it considers if and how legally recognized rights established for refugees under the 1951 UN Convention mediated their arrival and treatment. It finds a failure of a new discourse of rights to permeate the language surrounding their reception. Instead, well-worn tropes of the generosity of the British and their traditions of tolerance and hospitality were deployed consistently at national and local levels. This had the effect of implying that entry to Britain was a privilege and one not to be abused, and it marginalized refugees who failed to conform to particular expectations. The article argues that tying attitudes toward Hungarian refugees—variously positioned as “grateful” or “ungrateful”—can be usefully understood within the context of broader conceptions of the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor and their relationship with the (welfare) state. Consequently, along with exploring the experiences of reception and resettlement of Hungarians in 1956/7 the article contributes to understandings of behavior, rights, and welfare in postwar Britain.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)120-144
Number of pages25
JournalJournal of British Studies
Issue number1
Early online date4 Jan 2016
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2016


  • refugees
  • welfare
  • citizenship
  • tolerance
  • voluntary organisations

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